Watching the Christopher Dorner manhunt come to an end this evening with an eye over twitter, I saw people claiming that a request for a media blackout was censorship. Having worked as a journalist for a number of years, I wanted to explain what it is, why it’s used and how unusual it is.
A media blackout is actually a very rare event and it’s not an attempt to censor the press. It is a way of protecting the safety of public, investigating officers, or to ensure that an ongoing operation can be executed without alerting suspects to operational details that may aid them in evading capture. A media blackout is also something that can be enforced by a judge in a court case until the end of a trial, or to protect the identity of witnesses and juveniles.
In many occasions it’s actually not something that is publicized – it’s usually a conversation between the media liaison officer at the relevant agency and local editors/correspondents. The press doesn’t publicize that they’ve been asked not to report certain information – it would make the blackout pointless – because they understand that agencies make it rarely and with good reason. They also realize the potential potential backdraft if they publish information that results in the injury of death of the general public or police and EMS workers.
In today’s real-time media world, where tweets are as common a media outlet as more traditional broadcast and internet platforms for breaking stories, it is necessary for the police to make a public request for the media to respect a blackout.